Study Cultural Studies: PhD, Master's Degree & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a cultural studies degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and PhD and potential careers.
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Cultural Studies Master's and PhDs: Degrees at a Glance

If you're interested in analyzing the cultural workings of identity and power and studying a mix of complex theories, canonical literature and popular culture, then a graduate program in cultural studies could be an excellent fit. A doctoral degree is also essential if you wish to pursue an academic career in this interdisciplinary field.

There are several downsides, however. Admission to these programs is often highly selective. Earning a master's and a PhD could take anywhere from 5-10 years. Graduate students live on a shoestring budget, often with debt piling up. You'll also find few career paths other than academic and teaching positions, which are already highly competitive. A graduate program in cultural studies is best suited to those who know exactly what they want the degree for.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? College graduates who are interested in critical studies of culture and wish to work for cultural organizations Bachelor's or master's degree holders who want to pursue an academic career in cultural studies
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean salary) - Manager, arts-related community services organization ($63,000 - work experience often required)*
- Curator ($54,000 - work experience often required)*
- Cultural studies postsecondary teacher ($80,000)*
- College or university administrator ($97,000 - normally after some professorial experience)*
Time to Completion One or two years of full-time study Varies, but typically at least five years
Common Graduation Requirements - About 10-12 graduate courses
- Thesis or capstone project
- Master's exams
- Qualifying exams
- 8-12 graduate-level courses
- Dissertation based on original research
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree Bachelor's or master's degree
Online Availability Yes, but a limited number of programs are available No

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Cultural Studies

Master's degree programs provide relatively short but intensive training in cultural analysis. Over the course of two years, you'll study a variety of methods and theories that teach you to dissect meaning in culture and society. Some programs include instruction in a related discipline, such as gender studies, visual arts or media studies, while others draw from concepts in humanities and social sciences. Courses are generally small and discussion-based, so you won't be just a face in the crowd of a large lecture class. You can expect to be assigned a lot of reading each week, including some challenging theoretical literature.

Pros and Cons


  • Normally completed in 1-2 years
  • Excellent preparation for a doctoral degree program if you continue your studies
  • Sharpens critical thinking, research and writing skills, which can be valuable in many professions
  • Multidisciplinary nature of the field provides broad exposure to the knowledge and methods of various academic disciplines


  • Few career paths require a master's degree in cultural studies
  • Cultural studies is a relatively new discipline with fewer programs to choose from than related fields, such as history or literature
  • PhD programs sometimes only grant full credit for master's work completed at the same school, so you may lose ground changing universities to pursue a PhD

Courses and Requirements

Master's degree programs generally include a course that gives a broad overview of cultural studies and a few courses that teach research methods, writing and key theories on specialized topics. A seminar that helps students prepare a thesis or capstone project is also part of the program. A thesis normally demands original research and a standard of writing comparable to a published journal article. Many programs allow students to submit a film, multimedia project or other substantial piece of non-traditional work instead. Some of the courses you may be able to choose from include:

  • Foundations of cultural studies
  • Art and cultural policy
  • Literature and feminism
  • Media and race
  • Early film history
  • Science and ideology

Online Course Info

Online options for graduate-level work in cultural studies do exist, although they are not abundant. You can find individual online courses as well as hybrid and fully-online degree programs. These programs may go by alternative names, such as cross-cultural studies or liberal studies and provide distance learning options in a field that otherwise does not have much to offer online learners. The content and requirements in online courses and programs are more or less the same as in on-campus programs, but the emphasis may be more on practical and professional objectives than on the intellectual concerns outlined in many on-campus programs' mission statements.

Stand Out with this Degree

You might find that having a master's in cultural studies will lead others, including prospective employers, to wonder about the value of your degree. Although you can leave the program with training in critical thinking, researching and writing, you can do yourself a favor by having other in-demand skills, too.

Fluency with computers and new media are practical skills that you can develop in tandem with your academic work. Many cultural studies programs include media-centered courses, which can complement more technical studies. Cultural studies are generally more open to multimedia work than other disciplines, so you could possibly build a Website or make a podcast for one of your classes. It may take more work than writing a paper, but you'll be learning additional skills that are valued by employers.

PhD in Cultural Studies

The time it takes to get a PhD depends on if you already have a master's degree or if the master's is incorporated into your doctoral program. Attending different schools for the master's and PhD provides a larger network of contacts and a broader sense of academic life. However, many PhD programs grant partial or no credit for master's work completed elsewhere. The requirements for a doctorate consist of one or two years of coursework, essays or exams in a chosen subfield and a book-length dissertation. How quickly you graduate depends on when you finish the dissertation, but count on at least three years after you finish your PhD coursework, with five years being more common.

So, how does anyone afford all the tuition, books and living expenses? Universities rely on graduate students to help educate undergraduates and assist professors in research. Working as a graduate teaching assistant (or research assistant, library assistant, etc.) brings tuition waivers and often also a stipend. There are also many scholarships, fellowships and research grants available to candidates.

Pros and Cons


  • Qualifies you to pursue an academic career in the field
  • Scholarships, part-time assistantships and other forms of financial aid are widely available
  • Completing a dissertation gives you advanced research and writing skills that can be useful in many professions
  • Multidisciplinary nature of the field means you may be eligible for academic jobs in another field as well


  • Takes a long time to finish the program (in 2003, the average time to complete a PhD in the humanities after obtaining a bachelor's degree was nine years*)
  • Competition for tenure-track appointments is intense
  • With relatively few programs nationwide, you have limited school options
  • Some programs do not allow part-time study

Source: *National Science Foundation (March 2006 study).

Common Courses and Requirements

Cultural studies doctoral programs include a course or two in research methods, theory and approaches to cultural studies. You'll also take elective courses on various topics to help you define your area of interest through intensive reading and writing papers. After your graduate courses, you'll take exams or write essays in your subfield before moving into the dissertation phase. The range of elective courses offered depends on faculty strengths and the program's particular specialization options. Some programs also require students to choose a minor field to broaden their areas of expertise. Here are some examples of courses you might take:

  • American consumerism and culture
  • Gender, race and nation
  • Film criticism and theory
  • Postcolonialism
  • Sexuality and gender
  • History of transnational media

The dissertation process has several steps. First, you'd choose a topic and prepare a proposal. After your proposal is approved, you research, write and edit the equivalent of a book draft. Finally, you'd defend your work before a committee of professors. A faculty advisor would guide you through the entire process. When comparing programs, potential dissertation advisors should be an important factor. Don't be shy about contacting them directly or asking advice of the grad students in the departments you're considering. The goal is to find an established scholar who has similar interests and is able to become your advisor.

Online Degree & Course Info

If you're hoping to complete a PhD in cultural studies entirely online, you won't find any options. Distance learning is not well suited to the intangible aspects of a cultural studies program. Attending on-campus lectures, seminars, etc., provides crucial practice in the give-and-take of academic discussion. Be careful if you find any schools that claim to offer this program completely online and verify that the U.S. Department of Education or Council for Higher Education Accreditation approves the agency accrediting that school.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Many academics still love the traditional paper tools of their trade: card catalogs, archives, notes, printed books and journals, but knowing how new technologies can be used in an academic setting can be a huge benefit. Online research techniques, digitally printed materials, multimedia presentations and other IT tools are objects of study are increasingly commonplace at universities and other workplaces.

You could choose to study the cultural and social effects of a new technology as a scholar. Even if the topics that interest you are more traditional, you could experiment with multimedia formats in your coursework or join a Web-based project ran by a faculty member. The dissertation also offers an excellent opportunity to learn about online research.

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